In my previous blog post I introduced the new-to-me culture of inquiry called phenomenology. As I grappled with the concepts of phenomenological research, I reflected on the results and especially the limits of experiencing with my own consciousness, the lived experience of a person from a disadvantaged minority. It would deepen my understanding of colonization, and probably alter my classroom practice, if I could “gain direct knowledge of the feelings and images of” an Aboriginal Canadian (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 96). But is it even possible to “get behind the most elementary experiences” of Aboriginal life that I as a white Canadian am able to observe, and “look at their inner structure and how the mind makes [the experiences] what they are” (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 97)? As I reflected on how to structure such an inquiry, I remembered the book, Black Like Me. John Griffin, a white Texan, medically darkened his skin and lived for several weeks as a black man in the American South of the 1950’s (Griffin & Bonazzi, 2010). I wondered if this extreme example could illuminate phenomenological inquiry.
Phenomenologogy requires highly subjective data, especially if society’s accepted description is unsatisfactory (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998). When I speak of “the problem” of racism as a social issue, my mind holds nothing comparable to the experience of those subjected to racism. Griffin began his experiment “in a spirit of scientific detachment” but the experiences of racism and hatred he encountered became “such a profound personal experience, it haunted even my dreams” (Bonazzi, 1997, p. 103). That certainly meets the criteria of subjective data. But that was not Griffin’s first experience with the world of the disadvantaged. When a World War II injury left him blind, being the intellectual he was, he documented, and contested the boundaries of the world of the blind until his eyesight mysteriously returned ten years later (Kleege, 2007). In her journal article, “The Strange Life and Times of John Howard Griffin” Georgina Kleege questions, “in what ways—if at all—did his experience of blindness lead him to write Black Like Me?” (2007, p. 103). Near the end of his life, Griffin moved into the cell of his late friend Thomas Merton to write Merton’s biography (Griffin, 2010). In the forward, Robert Bonazzi writes, ” As with all his encounters, Griffin approached the world of Thomas Merton by immersing his own being entirely in its reality…experience was not deformed by intellectual concepts or by the prejudices of ego.” (Griffin, 2010, p. x) This is as close to the textbook definition of phenomenological technique as I could hope to find. Although I recognize there are less extreme techniques for exploring experience, Griffin’s practice of entering and returning from the world of the subject he studied has framed my initial understanding of the limits of Phenomenology.
Bentz, V. M., & Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful Inquiry in Social Research. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Bonazzi, R. (1997). Man in the Mirror : John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Wings Press.
Griffin, J. H. (2010). Follow the Ecstasy: The Hermitage Years of Thomas Merton. San Antonio, TX, USA: Wings Press. Retrieved July 12, 2016 from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10459068
Griffin, J. H., & Bonazzi, R. (2010). Black Like Me (50th Anniversary ed. edition). New York: Signet.
Kleege, G. (2007). The Strange Life and Times of John Howard Griffin. Raritan, 26(4), 96–112. Retrieved July 12, 2016 from https://ezproxy.royalroads.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=25122623
If you want a less academic treatment of John Griffin, I recommend this article from the non-peer reviewed Smithsonian Magazine: